Germanic Religion: An Overview

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From the linguistic point of view, the Germanic people constitute an archaic branch of the Indo-European family. The earliest Germanic culture that archaeologists identify as such is the so-called Jastorf culture, a cultural province of northern Europe in the Early Iron Age (c. 600 bce) covering present-day Holstein, Jutland, northeast Saxony, and western Mecklenburg. When Germanic tribes entered into written history in the works of classical authors such as Caesar and Tacitus, they had spread south towards the Rhine and the wooded hills of southern Germany, so that their closest neighbors were the Celts in Gaul. To the east their neighbors were the Balts and the Scythians and Sarmatians, Iranian tribes that roamed the plains of Russia. To the north they were in contact with the Sámi and the Finns. Although the Germanic people were primarily pastoralists, they also practiced agriculture and hunting. Their social organization was originally geared towards egalitarian communalism, but as contact with the Roman Empire changed economic conditions, a more diversified society developed in which wealth and rank tended to prevail, although nominally power still rested in the hands of the Thing, the assembly of all free men able to carry arms.

The post-Roman era saw the establishment of Germanic kingdoms in England and Scandinavia, some of which remained pagan for a surprisingly long time. The English adopted Christianity early in the seventh century, the Danes in the 960s, the Norwegians around 995 to 1000, and the Swedes not until the twelfth century. During the Viking age, pagan Scandinavian communities established themselves in Ireland, the Isle of Man, and northern and eastern England, and eventually accepted Christianity as they became assimilated. Iceland, which was settled in the late ninth century, was also a pagan Scandinavian country, although it was not a kingdom. Subject to the same missionary pressures as Norway, Iceland accepted Christianity in 999 or 1000. The pagan Scandinavian communities in Orkney, Shetland, and the Faroe Islands were converted at about the same time.


Our knowledge of Germanic religion comes from many different sources. A large number of Bronze Age rock carvings in southern Scandinavia are often referenced in descriptions of the religion's earliest phase, but these have to be interpreted with caution. For one thing, it is not certain that the creators of these carvings were Germanic. For another thing, the sets of pictures they present are particularly complex and mix many different kinds of symbols: ships, chariots, men plowing, people reveling to the sound of lurs and other musical instruments, worshipers carrying solar disks, and imprints of feet and hands. To call one figure among those the "spear god," for example, because of its larger size, and identify it as the spear-carrying Óðinn is conjectural at best. We cannot altogether dismiss the testimony of these petroglyphs, but quite possibly they are part of a kind of nature cult that cannot be fully connected with the pantheon later worshiped in the same places. Indisputably Germanic are gravesites and bog finds that provide information about funeral rites and sacrificial offerings. Monuments from the Roman period bear inscriptions with the names of Germanic deities, and classical writers refer to Germanic gods under their interpretatio Romana. The fourth- and fifth-century "Age of Migration" and the following period, when the Germanic kingdoms became established in western Europe, yield only meager documentation of the religion of the people who precipitated the downfall of the Roman Empire. However, place-name studies show the geographic extent of the cults of various gods, the antiquity of those cults, and the nature of a god's powers (for example, whether a god was worshiped by fishermen on the seacoast or by farmers in the interior), and the large number of runic inscriptions tell us something about pagan gods, priests, magic, and the remembrance of the dead. In literary sources such as chronicles, saints' lives, legal texts, and instructions to priests, Christian authors mention the pagan gods by name as they describe their cults and the actions taken by missionary kings and bishops and evangelizing saints against their worship. A considerable number of Scandinavian myths are transmitted in the lays of the Poetic Edda, some of which may date to the ninth century, but the bulk of our information about Scandinavian mythology comes from the thirteenth-century retellings and explanations compiled by Snorri Sturluson in his Prose Edda. The sagas describe life in pagan Iceland, Norway, and Sweden and contain numerous details on religious practices and specific forms of worship, as well as on the shift from paganism to Christianity. Like the other texts from the pens of Christian authors, the sagas have to be used with caution as a source of information on early Scandinavian belief and rites, but some of that information is certainly credible because it is confirmed by other kinds of evidence. Christian authors also copied a few charms and spells, which shed light on particular aspects of popular religion and superstition. One non-Christian source is the Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan, who in 921 was on his way to the Bulgar court when he encountered a group of Scandinavian traders (Rūs') on the Volga. They had stopped to perform funeral rites for one of their companions who had died on the trip, and Ibn Fadlan's account of the cremation, accompanied by the drugging and killing of a woman to serve the deceased in the next world, is an amazing piece of early ethnography.

The Creation Myth

In the Prose Edda, Snorri gives a complete description of creation that combines a number of older sources that are not always consistent with each other. The major Eddic poems used by Snorri are the Lay of Vafþrúðnir and and the Lay of Grímnir, which more or less duplicate each other, and Vǫluspá (Prophecy of the Seeress); but he also derives some details from sources lost to us and adds some deductions of his own. Quoting Vǫluspá (st. 3), Snorri stresses that at the beginning of time there was nothing but a great emptiness called Ginnungagap ("a void filled with magical forces"). According to the poem, "When Ymir lived, in earliest times, there was neither sand, nor sea, nor chill waves," whereas Snorri's prose explains, "In the beginning not anything existed; there was no sand, nor sea, nor cooling waves." Snorri's version probably reflects the older tradition, because the idea of an empty space and a world of mere potentiality preceding creation seems to belong to the ancestral heritage of the Germanic people (cf. the well-known cosmogonic hymn of the gveda [10.129]: "There was neither nonbeing nor being; nor was there space nor the sky above").

The first parts of the cosmos to emerge were Niflheimr ("dark world"), the sunless, misty world of death that lies in the north, and the blazing hot world of Muspell (the fire that would consume the earth) in the south. The antiquity of the association of death with the north is seen in Stone Age graves, which are oriented in this direction. Much later, the main or high seat in medieval Scandinavian housescalled ondvegi (way of the spirit) and supposed to be the seat of the ancestoris located to the north. And in magical rites, water flowing northward is related to the kingdom of death. The antiquity of the concept of a fiery southern realm is seen in the occurrence of the Old High German word muspilli in a tenth-century Bavarian eschatological poem, where it designates the universal fire at the end of the world. In Niflheimr was a well called Hvergelmir ("resounding kettle"), from which eleven rivers flowed. According to Snorri, the showers pouring out of Niflheimr whipped up the rivers, and the spray froze, so that layer after layer of ice piled up in Ginnungagap. The sparks and glowing embers flying out of Muspell met the hoarfrost and the ice, and from the slush and heat, life emerged in the shape of an anthropomorphic being named Ymir or Aurgelmir. From this primal giant sprang the dreadful brood of the frost giants, whom he engendered by sweating out a male and a female from under his left arm. In addition, one of his legs begat a son with his other leg. Here Snorri has merged two traditions that the Lay of Vafþrúðnir keeps separate: in stanza 21 of the poem, Ymir is named as the giant involved in the formation of the world, but in stanzas 2935, Vafþrúðnir, the oldest living giant, explains to Óðinn that the genealogy of the giants began with Aurgelmir, who fathered Þrúðgelmir, who fathered Bergelmir, who fathered Vafþrúðnir himself.

No direct source is available for the account of the origin of the gods that Snorri gives next: the melting rime has taken the shape of a cow, Auðumla, whose name contains the Old Norse word for "riches" and another term connected with the English dialect word hummel or humble (hornless cow), presumably designating a "rich hornless cow." This cow feeds Ymir with the milk flowing from her udders, a tradition paralleling that of the primeval cow in Indo-Iranian mythology. Auðumla gets her own food by licking the salty ice blocks, which she shapes into another primal being, Búri, who begets a son, Borr. Borr marries Bestla, the daughter of the giant Bölþorn ("evil thorn," a term still used in the Jutland dialect [bøltorn] to designate a "scrappy, violent person"). Borr and his wife have three sons: Óðinn, Vili, and Vé. The three divine brothers kill the giant Ymir, and the flow of blood gushing from his wounds drowns all the frost giants except Bergelmir, who escapes mysteriously with his family to continue the race. Now the three gods set about building the earth. The body of Ymir is carried into the middle of the great void; his blood forms the sea and the lakes, his flesh the earth, his skull the sky (with a dwarf at each corner, as if to hold it up), his hair the trees, his brain the clouds, his bones the mountains, and so on. Sparks flying from Muspell form the stars and heavenly bodies, and the gods order their movements, determining the divisions of time. The resulting world is circular, surrounded by a vast ocean. In the middle of the earth the gods establish Miðgarðr ("dwelling place in the middle"), a residence for mankind that is strengthened by a fence made from Ymir's eyebrows, and they provide land on the shore for the giants to settle down. The next task of the gods is the creation of man. Finally, they build Ásgarðr ("dwelling place of the Æsir"), their own residence.

A number of elements of the Eddic creation myth point to very old traditions. For example, the cow is a typical fertility symbol, and Auðumla reminds us of the celestial cow in Middle Eastern and South Asian myths. Further, in the myth of Ymir, two motifs have apparently merged: the engenderment of primeval beings and the creation of the world from parts of his body. The idea of an ancestral progenitor is already found in the classical sources about Germanic religion: Tacitus, in the second chapter of his Germania, tells of Tuisto, born from the earth, who begets Mannus, the common ancestor of the Germanic tribes. These names are quite revealing. Tuisto is related to the English word two and designates a bisexual being (cf. Ger. Zwitter ). This androgynous ancestor resembles Ymir, who has other parallels in Indo-Iranian mythology, where the Old Indic Yama (cf. Av. yima, "twin") is supposed to have had incestuous relations with his twin sister. Mannus not only corresponds to the English word man but also has striking parallels in India, where Manu is the ancestor of man, and in ancient Phrygia, where the ancestor of the Phrygians is Mánes.

The three main Germanic tribes derive their names from the sons of Mannus, and in at least two cases show similar associations with deities. The Inguaeones, a tribe from the North Sea region, is linked with the minor god *Ingw[az], the male counterpart of the mother goddess. An Old English runic poem indicates that he was venerated in southern Scandinavia (indeed, the Danes are called Ingwine ["friend of Ing"] in the Old English poem Beowulf, lines 1044 and 1319), and his association with Freyr is illustrated by the Old Norse compound Yngvifreyr (Gmc. *Ingwja-fraujaz). Although little information is provided about his cult, he is undoubtedly associated with fertility, as is shown by the runic poem's reference to his wagon (cf. the sacred wagon kept in the grove of the Earth Mother, Nerthus. Yngvi is also considered the ancestor of the Yngling dynasty in Sweden. The tribe of the (H)erminones, whose territory extended from the lower Elbe southward into Bohemia, derive their name from Germanic *ermina-/*ermuna- (mighty, lofty), a common divine epithet. (In Old Norse, Jörmunr is another name for Óðinn. In Saxon, [H]irmin is the god corresponding to Mars, and the name for the axis mundi is Irminsul. In Old High German, the compound irmingot [mighty god] occurs in the poem Hildebrandslied.) The tribe of the Istaevones of the Weser-Rhine area are not related to any specific deity, but their name is perhaps connected with Gothic aistan, meaning "honor" or "worship."

The idea of dismembering a giant to create the world is found also in Middle Eastern and other traditions. An Iranian myth preserved in Manichaeism is the closest to that of Ymir, as it equates a giant's skin with the sky, his flesh with the earth, his bones with the mountains, his hair with plants, and his blood with the sea. Here there can be no question of mutual influence, diffusion, or borrowing from a common source. Taking into consideration the Purua myth in the gveda (10.90), which explains in a similar way the origin of the world and society through the sacrifice of primal man and the projection of his bodily parts into the macrocosm, it is clear than the Germanic creation story is a reflex of an old Indo-European myth. Bruce Lincoln (1986) has elaborated the complex data about creation in various Indo-European traditions into a coherent scenario in which the first priest, *Manu-, kills his twin brother, *Yemo-, the first king, thus performing the first sacrifice. As a result of this act the world is created, and *Manu- fashions the earth and heavens as well as the three social classes from his brother's body. The female bovine that appears in the European version of the myth originally fed and cared for the twins before the creative act. Against this background, many of the archaic elements in the Germanic tradition appear in a new and broader light.

The Germanic Cosmos

After its creation, the Germanic cosmos consisted of nine worlds. Man lives in the center of the universe, and the major Germanic traditions concur in calling his dwelling place "the central abode" (Goth., Midjungards; OHG, Mittilgart; OE, Middangeard; ON, Miðgarðr ). But the center is also where the gods built their residence, Ásgarðr. It is described as spacious, with numerous dwellings, surrounded by a beautiful green pasture, Iðavöllr, and by a palisade built by a giant. In addition to these places and Niflheimr and Muspell, there were also Álfheimr ("world of the [light] elves"), Svartálfheimr ("world of the dark elves"), Vanaheimr ("world of the Vanir"), Jötunheimr ("world of the giants"), and Útgarðr ("outer abode"), the dangerous world of demons, giants, and other frightening creatures.

Germanic myth evinces a real fear of this no-man's-land outside the settlement, and the idea of the frontier is there all the time, with the gods serving to ward off dangers from the wild. The islanders and the people along the shore believed that a universal ocean surrounds the earth, with an unfathomable abyss at the horizon and a huge snake curling at the edge to hold the world together. The serpent is called the Miðgarðr serpent or Jörmungandr; according to Snorri, this monstrous ophidian bit its taila concept that does not occur in the Eddic poems but that is quite common in Eastern religions and that was introduced in Scandinavia by medieval Christian scholarship. The symbol (similar to the ouroboros in Jungian psychology) may be borrowed, but the concept is old, as the name Jörmungandr shows. Connected with jörmungrund (meaning "earth" in st. 20 of the Lay of Grímnir ), jörmun - (also a name of Óðinn) is an adjective meaning "great, powerful, lofty," and gandr means "magic wand." The compound eormengrund also appears in Beowulf (line 859).

When the gods go out into the world, it seems that the universal ocean does not exist for them, for in every direction they move on solid ground. The north and the east are particularly dangerous, being the abodes of demons, and the south will become so at the end of time, at Ragnarǫk, when the fire giant Surtr ("black," cf. English swarthy ) will lead a host of monsters against the gods in their last battle. To the west lies the ocean. The old Germanic tradition of ship burials implies the concept of a world of the dead beyond the sea, a view perhaps borrowed from the Celts and manifested in the Irish legends about the "islands of the blessed." This concept is also reflected in the idea of a ship of death (made from the fingernails of corpses) that sails from the world of the demons at Ragnarǫk.

For the Germanic people in Norway, Útgarðr must have been represented by the high mountains and the arctic territories to the north. The road is over land; Skírnir (servant of the god Freyr) rides to Útgarðr on Freyr's horse (the Lay of Skírnir, st. 10), and the adventures of Þórr always take him eastward. There lie the realms of the giant Hymir, who lives at the "end of the world"; of the giants Þrymr and Hrymr (Vǫluspá 49); and the "iron forest" (ON, járnviðr ), where the brood of demons is born (Vǫluspá 39). There is a great river at the border of Miðgarðr, with a boatman, Hárbarðr, to take people over. The frost giants live in the north, and Loki will seek refuge with them.

As has been mentioned, the world of the dead was thought to lie to the north. One concept of it was as a hall: the cold, dark, wet house of the witch Hel. In st. 43 of the Lay of Vafþrúðnir, the giant says that he has seen all the worlds, and Niflhel ("dark Hel") below them, which perhaps leads to Snorri's impression of it as being underground, for he says: "Helvegr liggr niðr ok norðr" ("The way to Hel lies downward and to the north"). The Old Norse term Hel (hiding) applies to both the place and its ruler. The belief in this underworld seems to be common to all Germanic cultures. In 915 a poet celebrating a victory of the Saxons over the Franks wonders whether there will be enough room in "hell" for all those who fell in the battle. Depite the later development of the name, Hel was not originally a place of punishment, but it was an unpleasant place to spend the afterlife. (Snorri, evidently influenced by the Christian concept of Hell, does describe Niflhel as "the lowest world where the wicked go.") An elaborate description is given in the Eddic sources: the approaches are protected by terribly noisy rivers, such as Valglaumir, Gjöll, and Sliðr, which, according to Vǫluspá (st. 35), "is filled with swords and knives." This picture is apparently influenced by Christian visionary literature; similar is st. 27 of the Lay of Grímnir, which also mentions the river Geirvimul ("swarming with spears"). There is a bridge over Gjöll, guarded by a giantess. The Greek hellhound Kerberos also has his parallel in Eddic tradition: the lay Baldr's Dreams (sts. 2 and 3) mentions a dog that comes out of Hel. The realm of Hel is also surrounded by a fence whose gates open only for the dead.

The sky is the abode of the gods in the later conception of the Germanic people, which transfers Ásgarðr to heaven. The changing views of Valhǫll are a typical example of the shift. Originally, it was a subterranean hall for warriors killed in combat. Later it was connected with Óðinn and became the heavenly residence of his heroic retinue. These are human warriors who die in battle and who will form Óðinn's army against the monsters at Ragnarǫk. According to Snorri, the warriors amuse themselves by fighting each other during the day and feasting every evening. (The contrast between Hel and Valhǫll was presumably meant to encourage men to fight to the death, for all other kinds of death would send the deceased to Hel.) Valhǫll is a huge palace with 540 doors so large that 800 warriors can exit through each (Lay of Grímnir, sts. 2324). Over the gate and gable a wolf and an eagle are mounted, just as Charlemagne is said to have had an eagle nailed on his palace.

Like the netherworld, the sky is linked with the world by a bridge, this one guarded by the god Heimdallr; it is called Bilröst ("wavering road") or Bifröst ("shivering road"), names signifying the rainbow. In st. 29 of the Lay of Grímnir, the "bridge of the gods" is described as "ablaze with flames." Here the concept may represent the Milky Way, which the forces of evil from Muspell will walk at the twilight of the world, and which, in many religious systems, is described as the "path of the souls."

The Cosmic Tree

The nine worlds are also linked by the ash tree Yggdrasill, which rises to the sky, its branches spreading over the entire world (Vǫluspá, st. 2). It is supported by three roots, which respectively stretch to the world of the dead (Hel), the world of the frost giants, and the world of men. At the foot of the tree are several springs: the spring of the goddess of fate, Urðr (Vǫluspá, st. 19) and the wells of Mímir (Vǫluspá, st. 28) and Hvergelmir (Lay of Grímnir, st. 26). Snorri tried to relate these three springs to the three roots, but it may be there was only one well, known under different names according to its symbolic functions as the source of wisdom (Mímir), of fate (Urðr), or of the rivers of the world (Hvergelmir). Yggdrasill has other characteristics and associations. For example, it is always green, and according to Vǫluspá (st. 19), a clear vivifying liquid called aurr drips down from the tree. Its branches are home to an eagle who carries between its eyes a hawk named Veðrfölnir ("faded by the weather"). A squirrel named Ratatoskr ("rat tooth") leaps up and down the tree, conveying words of abuse exchanged between the eagle and the monstrous Níðhoggr ("corpse-devourer"), one of the many snakes gnawing at the roots of the tree. Four deer gambol about the branches, eating the shoots. As well as being the location of the gods' daily council meeting, the cosmic tree is also an axis mundi ; it props up the sky like the central pole of a tent holding up the roof. The idea of propping up the sky was part of the Germanic heritage, as is shown by the Irminsul, a Saxon "idol" destroyed by Charlemagne in 772 and described by the medieval historian Rudolf of Fulda as a huge tree trunkuniversalis columna, quasi sustinens omnia (a universal column, as if holding up everything).

According to the contemporary testimony of Adam of Bremen in his history of the bishops of Hamburg, Yggdrasill was represented near the temple in Uppsala by a gigantic evergreen tree. What kind of tree is it? "Nobody knows," says Adam. Vǫluspá describes it as an ash, which definitely reflects the western Scandinavian tradition, but scholars have assumed that in eastern Scandinavia it could have been a yew. The yew was venerated in Gaul, and classical writers mention its importance in Germania as well. The name Yggdrasill itself is ambiguous. The second element, drasill, is a poetic word for "horse," but the first element might be either Yggr, a name for Óðinn (i.e., "Óðinn's horse"), or the adjective yggr ("frightening"). In either case, the dreadful mount appears to represent the gallows, thus implying a connection with Óðinn, who was known as "the god of the hanged." The identification of ygg - with the Old Norse term ýr ("yew") is less plausible on linguistic grounds.

The symbolism of the tree is extremely important, as it is mirrored in other traditions. In ancient Babylonia, for example, a cosmic tree, Kiskanu, grew in a holy place; radiant with shining lapis lazuli (symbolizing the starry night), it stretched towards the primeval waters. This was the dwelling place of Ea (the god of fertility and skills such as agriculture, arts and crafts, and writing), and his mother Bau (the goddess of plenty) rested there as well. Babylonian pictures of the tree sometimes show it surrounded by goats or with a bird poised on it. In ancient India, the universe is symbolized by an inverted tree, with its roots in the sky and its branches spreading over the earth, representing the downpouring of the sun's rays. Yggdrasill has sometimes been compared with the tree of life in the Hebrew scriptures, but there is no proof of any Judeo-Christian element in the concept of Yggdrasill. The presence of the eagle and the snake, however, reminds us of the cosmological motif found in Indian mythology, where the combat of Garuda with the reptile symbolizes the struggle between light and darkness (the eagle is a sun bird, whereas the snake belongs to the underworld). The liquid dripping from the tree can be compared with the streaming milk and honey in the Semitic myths of paradise, with amrta (the Old Indic beverage of immortality identified with mead), and with the honeydew spread by the Aśvins. In Vǫluspá (st. 27), the tree is described as secreting a clear liquid (heiðr ) that must be the "sap of life." The element heið - also appears in the name of the magical goat Heiðrún, whose udders every day fill Valhǫll's cauldrons with mead for Óðinn's retinue.

The War of the Æsir and the Vanir

The Germanic gods are divided into two groups, the Æsir and the Vanir. Following the medieval practice of etymologizing, Snorri says that the Æsir's name shows that they came from Asia, but this interpretation does not appear to reflect any authentic tradition. Jordanes, the sixth-century historian of the Goths, cites a Gothic word ansis (or anses ) that is glossed as "demigods." This element also occurs in men's names such as the Gothic Ansila, the Burgundian Ansemundos (cf. ON, Ásmundr ), the Langobardic Ansegranus, and the Old High German Ansgar and Anshelm. Together with the Old Norse term áss, these words derive from the Germanic *ansuz, designating some type of deity. The feminine form preserved in the southern Germanic divine name Vihansa might refer to a war goddess if *wih- is an alternative form of *wig- ("combat"; OHG and OE, wig; ON, víg ). The Æsir, however, are ruling gods, which makes it more plausible to associate their name with the Hittite word hashshush (king) than with the Old Indic prefix asu - (breath of life), as is usually suggested.

The name Vanir has been connected with the Old Norse word vinr (friend), with Venus (the Latin name for the goddess of love), and with the Sanskrit vánas - (lust), an etymology very suitable for fertility gods. Vanir has also been related to the Sanskrit vánam (water; cf. the latinized Slavic ethnic name Veneti, meaning "people of the waters"), an interpretation made doubtful by the fact that the Vanir as a group are not aquatic deities, although one of them, Njǫrðr, is associated with the sea. Overall, the Vanir are fertility gods.

In the mythological "now," the Vanir live in peace with the Æsir, but this was not always the case. At the dawn of time, a bitter war was fought between the two groups, which Snorri reports (with varying details) in two different works, Ynglinga Saga (the first part of his history of the kings of Norway) and the Edda. The former is an euhemeristic narration of the early life of the Æsir in "Asia" (ON, Ásaland, Ásaheimr ). Their neighbors, the Vanir, lived in Vanaland or Vanaheimr, in the vicinity of the Tanais (the classical name for the River Don). Óðinn leads his army against the Vanir, but they resist vigorously. The two sides are alternately victorious, and they loot each other's territory until they grow tired of fighting and conclude a peace that puts them on equal footing. They exchange hostages: the Vanir Njǫrðr and his son Freyr are transferred to the world of the Æsir, and the Æsir in turn deliver Mímir and Hœnir to the Vanir. As Mímir is very wise, the Vanir reciprocate by sending "the cleverest among them"Kvasirto the Æsir. In the Edda, however, Snorri claims that Kvasir was created from the saliva of the Vanir and the Æsir when they spat into the communal caldron at the conclusion of the peace. Other evidence linking Kvasir's blood to the mead of poetic inspiration suggests that this second version is closer to the original. In addition to the formal transfer of Njǫrðr and Freyr to Ásgarðr, the Vanir goddess Freyja (Njǫrðr's daughter and Freyr's sister) also ends up living with the Æsir. No extant myth explains how this came to pass, but hints in Vǫluspá suggest that Freyja went to Ásgarðr during the war, disguised as a witch named Gullveig, with the intention of corrupting the Æsir with greed, lust, and sorcery. Perhaps her visit was even the initial cause of the Æsir-Vanir conflict. This mythological war has been seen as a reflection of an actual religious war or the replacement of one cult with another, but it has also been taken as a symbolic explanation of the existence of different aspects of divinity.

The Pantheon

The earliest written testimony we have about the religion of the Germanic peoples is a statement by Julius Caesar in the sixth book of his account of the Gallic Wars indicating that they worshiped the sun, the moon, and Vulcan, which is generally taken to mean "fire." However, there is no trace of a moon cult in the Germanic territories, and the role of fire in cult and ritual seems to have been rather limited in historical times. Possibly Caesar was reporting an archaic version of Germanic religion, or perhaps his information was just inaccurate. Fortunately, the data supplied some 150 years later by Tacitus provide a fairly accurate picture of what must have been the structure of the Germanic pantheon in his time (end of the first century ce).

According to Tacitus, the main god is Mercury, whose Latin name, Mercurius, is a Roman interpretation of the Germanic name *Woðan[az]. This is confirmed by the translation of the Latin weekday-name Mercurii dies (Mercury's day) into the Germanic *Woðniz-dag[az] ("Woden's day"; cf. Eng., Wednesday; Du., woensdag ). Mercury is flanked by Mars and Hercules. The former represents the Germanic god *Tiw[az], whose name is preserved in the English Tuesday (OE, *Tiwesdæg; cf. Lat., Martis dies ). The latter is usually interpreted as representing the Germanic champion of the gods, *Þun[a]r[az], although, as thunder god, he was also equated by Latin writers with Jupiter, as is shown by the translation of the Latin weekday-name Jovis dies into "Thor's day" (Eng., Thursday; Ger., Donnerstag; Du., donderdag ). As Mercury/*Woðan[az] is the only Germanic god credited by Tacitus with receiving human sacrifice, many scholars assume that the regnator omnium deus (god reigning over all) venerated by the Suevian tribe of the Semnones in their sacred grove and honored as their ethnic ancestor with regular human sacrifices must be the same deity, though perhaps Allan Lund (1990) is right in claiming that he must have been worshiped as an eponymous founder under the name *Semno.

Tacitus also refers to other locally worshiped Germanic deities such as Nerthus ("Mother Earth"), for whom the Inguaeonic people hold a yearly pageant during which they celebrate the powers of fertility that she incarnates, or the divine twins whom he calls Alcis (Gmc., *Alhiz) and equates with the Roman twins Castor and Pollux. In both cases he supplies a few details about cult and ritual, specifying, for example, that Nerthus shrouds herself in mystery. She remains hidden in a curtained chariot during her peregrinations among her worshipers, only her priest can approach her, and after the completion of her ceremonial journey she is bathed in a secret lake, but all those who officiate in this lustration rite are drowned afterward to maintain the "sacred ignorance" about her. Similarly, Tacitus indicates that the priests of the Dioscuri among the eastern Germanic Naharvales wear feminine attire, which presumably includes their long hair, a feature closely associated with the Germanic divine twins. Moreover, he points out that these deities are not represented by any image or statue, which corroborates his general statement about the aniconic character of Germanic religion"[They] do not think it proper to portray gods with any kind of human countenance" (Germania 9)but is at least partly contradicted by the archaeological finds of some roughly hewn stakes offering a rudimentary anthropomorphic representation of the gods.

In the Annals, Tacitus refers to other Germanic deities, such as Tamfana, whose sanctuary was an important center of cultural activities in the territory of the Marsi (between the Lippe and the Ruhr rivers). Her "temple" was allegedly leveled by the Romans during the celebration of an autumnal festival in 4 ce. Its very existence contradicts Tacitus's statement in the Germania that the Germanic people "refuse to confine their gods within walls" and the contention that worship generally took place outdoors and in the woods, as with the Frisian goddess Baduhenna, near whose sacred grove a Roman detachment was massacred.

In the Roman period, inscriptions provide further information about the deities venerated by the Germanic people within the boundaries of the empire, such as Nehalennia, whose sanctuary near Domburg on the Dutch island of Walcheren has yielded an abundance of altars and statues. She was worshiped mainly by seamen and traders, mostly natives of the northwestern provinces of the Empire, who dedicated the monuments to the goddess in return for the help received from her. Her attributes (cornucopias, specific fruits, dogs, etc.) characterize her as a fertility goddess with strong chthonic overtones, but she apparently also shares the patronage of navigation with Isis, whose presence Tacitus mentions "among part of the Suevians" (presumably the Hermunduri, who were in close contact with the Roman province of Noricum where the cult of Isis had been integrated with that of the national goddess Noreia).

Important also were the matres or matronae (mothers or matrons), whose worship is documented by votive stones with dedicatory inscriptions found mainly in the territory of the Ubii on the left side of the Rhine in the second and third centuries ce. Their worshipers belonged essentially to the lower classes but also included some high-office holders in the Roman administration and army. The matres were invoked for protection against danger and catastrophes or for the prosperity of the family, and were described as bestowing their blessings generously, as such epithets as Gabiae (givers), Friagabis (generous donors), and Arvagastiae (hospitable ones) indicate. As they often appear in groups of three and seem to be associated with the fate and welfare of man, they have been compared with the Norns, especially as one stone carries the inscription "Matrib[us] Parc[is]," referring directly to the interpretatio Romana of the three deities of fate.

The picture that emerges from the data of the Roman period can be summarized as follows:

  • The sovereign god *Woðan[az] (identified with Mercury) may have taken over the prominent place originally occupied by the old Indo-European sky god *Deiwos (Gmc., *Tiwaz; Gk., Zeus; ON Týr ), who has still preserved a sufficiently prominent position among certain tribes (e.g., the Chatti) for the spoils of the enemy to be dedicated to him and *Woðan[az] jointly.
  • The divine champion Þun[a]r[az] is identified with the thunder god Jupiter or with Hercules.
  • The divine twins, the *Alhiz, identified with Castor and Pollux, were venerated locally, especially among the eastern Germanic tribes.
  • The fertility deities were worshiped regionally and had associated functions such as the protection of navigation or the determination of man's fate; they include Nehalennia, the matres or matronae, Nerthus, and *Ingw[az].

Although poorly documented, the Germanic pantheon of the Migration and post-Migration periods shows an apparent continuity in this system:

  • *Woðan[az] remains the supreme god and is honored as the ancestor of royal lineages; there is also some evidence of his connection with magic. *Tiw[az] recedes to the background but is perhaps to be identified with the tribal god of the Saxons, whose name occurs together with Woden and Thunaer in the abjuration formula the Saxons had to pronounce with their baptismal vows during the forcible conversion campaign conducted by Charlemagne. The third name in the abjuration formula, Saxnote, is ambiguous: it can either mean "sword companion" or denote a "sacrificial" god. Although the former interpretation fits in with the statement in the chronicles about the cult of "Mars" among the Saxons and could be connected with the presence of the cosmic pillar Irminsul in their main sanctuary (a reference to *Tiw[az]'s original function as sky god), the latter would make more plausible Dumézil's suggestion that the Saxon triad Thunaer-Woden-Saxnote corresponds to the Scandinavian trinity Þórr-Óðinn-Freyr in the Uppsala temple. Saxnote could indeed be a god of the tribal community, just as Freyr is folkvaldi (leader of the people). Saxnote would presumably have been sacrificed to, as was Freyr, the blótgoð Svía (sacrificial god of the Swedes).
  • *Þun[a]r[az], the thunder god, progressively gains prominence as the divine representative of the warrior class.
  • Although there is no direct evidence of a cult of the divine twins, their functional role is euhemerized in the figures of the twin founding heroes of various Germanic groups, such as Hengist and Horsa for the early Saxons in Great Britain, Raos and Raptos for the Vandalic Hasdingi, and Ibor and Aio for the Winnili (Lombards). The names Hengist and Horsa (related respectively to Ger. Hengst, "stallion," and Eng. horse ) remind us of the association of the divine twins with horses. In Greek they are referred to as leuko polo ("with white horses") and in ancient India they are known as the Aśvinau ("possessors of horses"). The names Raos and Raptos (related respectively to Ger. Rahe [yard] and Eng. rafter ) reflect the aniconic representation of the Dioscuri by beams, which occurred also in ancient Sparta, and in the shape of the Latin letter H or the Greek letter (pi). The Langobardic terms ibor (presumably from Gmc. *ebur-, "boar") and aio (Gmc, *agjo, "edge, sharp side of a blade") may refer to the sharp tusks of the wild boar, an animal also closely associated with the fertility deities Freyr and Freyja, with whose domain the divine twins also have direct links.
  • Besides the already mentioned references to *Ingw[az], a number of names of deities associated with fertility occur, such as Erce, a name apparently borrowed from Celtic and used to designate Mother Earth in an Old English charm; Phol (OHG, Vol), appearing together with Woden and Balder in the Old High German Merseburg spell; Friia and Frig, the Old High German and Old English names, respectively, for the Germanic goddess identified with Venus, whose name survives in the German Freitag and the English Friday. The often assumed existence of a spring deity, *Austro, from whose name the word Easter (Ger, Ostern ) is supposedly derived, is, however, doubtful: it rests on an interpretation of the Old English term Eostrae by Bede (672/3735 ce) and has no backing either in cult or myth; it has recently been more convincingly explained as a Christian missionary term.
  • There are also a few minor deities such as Fosite, to whom an island was consecrated at the juncture of the Frisian and Danish territories. He is known only from a reference in the life of Saint Willibrord, but his name shows a striking similarity to that of the Scandinavian god Forseti, whose specific function according to the Lay of Grímnir is to settle all disputes; he is the son of Baldr and lives in Glitnir, a hall "propped with gold and shingled with shining silver" (st. 15). Forseti's name is transparent: it means "presiding [over the Thing]," but no satisfactory explanation can be given for the loss of the [r] in Fosite, so that the connection between Fosite and Forseti remains conjectural.

Our knowledge of the Scandinavian development of the Germanic pantheon in the Viking age is much more detailed, for we have a fair amount of pagan poetry (copied in Christian times, but dating back to the ninth and tenth centuries) that mentions the gods and the myths about them. The blossoming of literature in medieval Iceland after the conversion also provides ample information about the pagan gods and cults of the Germanic North. Moreover, reports from various non-Scandinavian sources attest to the prevalence of the worship of Þórr among the Vikings. This is also confirmed by studies that show no people and very few places named after Óðinn, but many people and places named after Þórr. This situation should not be misinterpreted: Óðinn was the sovereign god, but he was the deity associated primarily with the warrior elite, whereas Þórr was worshiped by the majority of the people. The cult of Týr remained widespread only in Denmark, although his name appears frequently in West Norse poetry because it means simply "god" and was often used in synonyms for Óðinn.

The comparativist Georges Dumézil considered the common Indo-European "ideology" to have consisted of three principles or "functions" (the maintenance of cosmic and juridical order; the exercise of physical force; and the promotion of physical well-being, fertility, and wealth), and he interpreted the gods of the various groups of the Indo-Europeans' descendents as representing these "functions." Óðinn and Týr he saw as co-sovereigns, the former representing the magical aspect of the first "function" and the latter its juridical aspect. Þórr represented the second "function," including its manifestation in war, and Njǫrðr, Freyr, and Freyja represented the third "function." Such a presentation, however, oversimplifies the picture of the Scandinavian system, which fails to show the characteristic slant towards war in the second "function," as Dumézil himself acknowledges. All the deities supposedly representing different "functions" have some association with war. Óðinn intervenes in battles to give victory to his favorites, and Þórr frequently engages in hand-to-hand combat with giants of both sexes. Even the Vanir gods seem to acquire some of the Æsir's combative spirit when they move to Ásgarðr, as when the peaceful Freyr, who had given up his sword to obtain the favors of a beautiful giant maiden, faces the giant Beli without a weapon and kills him with a hart's horn. And while Óðinn collects half of the heroes who die on the battlefield to join his retinue in Valhǫll, it is certainly striking that Freyja gets the other half. Fertility is another area that is not easily compartmentalized as Dumézil would have it. The thunder god Þórr was the protector of the peasant class, which depended on the weather for its crops, but he shares control of the atmosphere with Njǫrðr, who controls the path of the wind and, as sea god, counteracts the effects of the thunderstorms, quieting the sea and smothering the lightning-sparked fires. Furthermore, some very important aspects of the major deities are not covered by Dumézil's labels. For example, Óðinn is as much the god of "inspired cerebral activity" as he is the god of sovereignty, but his role as the patron of the poets cannot be explained by Dumézil's system. And although Óðinn manifests his sovereign power through potent magical interventions, he is definitely not the only one to wield magical powers. The Vanir use seiðr, an effeminate form of sorcery that the Æsir deem despicable but which Óðinn nevertheless is keen to learn from Freyja. Finally, Óðinn's ability to change shape is more than matched by the metamorphoses of Loki. It is also shared by certain giants such as Suttungr, who pursues Óðinn in the shape of an eagle, or Þjazi, who also assumes the shape of an eagle to follow the trickster Loki. Indeed, complex figures such as Loki and Heimdallr do not fit into Dumézil's neat matrix at all.

Loki is extremely difficult to classify. Originally a giant, he nevertheless played an important part in the decisions and activities of the gods. Although primarily a mischievous trickster, Loki cannot be described as an "evil demon." He is restless and inventive, deceptive and unreliable. Frequently causing trouble for the gods, he usually redeems himself by solving the problem he created. Ultimately he goes too far when his delight in mischief leads to the death of Óðinn's son Baldr, utterly outraging the whole divine world and resulting in his being chained up until Ragnarǫk. Dumézil sees in him an incarnation of impulsive intelligence, but this interpretation is disputable. There is no trace of any cult devoted to Loki, nor are any people or places named for him.

Heimdallr occupies a similarly marginal position in the pantheon. It is not even clear to which group of gods he should be assigned. Apparently he offered up his hljóð, which was hidden as a pledge under the cosmic tree, Yggdrasill, as did Óðinn his eye. Óðinn appropriately received exceptional vision and Heimdallr was gifted with extraordinary aural perception: "He can hear the grass grow on the earth and the wool on sheep." It has therefore been assumed that the Old Norse term hljóð generally translated "horn" in this context (Vǫluspá, st. 27) but usually meaning "silence, listening, hearing, what is heard"must designate one of Heimdallr's ears. Offering up a body part in exchange for a major attribute is a characteristic feature of the most important Æsir, Óðinn and Týr. (The latter sacrificed his hand in order to guarantee a pledge that enabled the gods to fetter the monstrous wolf Fenrir, and in return assumed the role of protector of the Thing and patron of the law.) As guardian of the gods and watchman of Ásgarðr, Heimdallr assumes a military function, which would make him a second-function god in the Dumézilian system, like Þórr (with whom he shares the tendency to imbibe great quantities of mead). But the Eddic Poem of Þrýmr (Þrýmskviða, st. 15) describes him as one of the Vanir and able to "fathom the future." His affinity with the ram further complicates matters: was he originally a god of sheep breeders, as Freyr was a god of wheat growers and pig breeders?

The minor deities are also problematic. Some of them, such as Ullr, an archer god living in Ýdalir ("yew dales") in Ásgarðr, can be integrated into the tripartite functional scheme. His importance is made clear by Óðinn's statement in the Lay of Grímnir (st. 42) that among all the gods, Ullr especially will grant his blessing to him who "first quenches the fire." The most sacred oaths are sworn by Ullr's ring, and as a stepson of Þórr, he has close connections with the warriors. He is invoked by those engaged in single combat, and the poetic circumlocution an "Ullr of battle" means "a warrior." According to the evidence of place-names, he was the object of an extended cult in Norway and Sweden, where he was called Ullinn, but there he eventually seems to have been overshadowed by Þórr, Freyr, and Freyja. There is practically no trace of him in Denmark, which instead has many places named for Týr. This is rather significant in light of the story of Ullr's temporary usurpation of Óðinn's throne, as narrated by Saxo Grammaticus: Óðinn had committed a grievous breach of his royal majesty by assuming a feminine disguise, and as a result of this disgrace he was replaced by Ullr, who reigned for ten years. When Óðinn was restored, Ullr (whose name, latinized into Ollerus, means "glory, brilliance") fled to Sweden but was killed afterward by Danes. In view of Ullr's connection with oath-taking, Dumézil sees in this episode an illustration of the complementary nature of the two aspects of sovereignty, the inspired and the majestic. The latter, with its juridical connotations, is illustrated by Saxo's second story of Óðinn's temporary ouster from power. Óðinn's fall this time is brought about by the misconduct of his wife, Frigg, and he is replaced by a magician called Mithotyn, who introduces all kinds of innovations that the people dislike. As a result, Óðinn is welcomed back while Mithotyn flees and is eventually killed on the Danish island of Fyn. In this story, Dumézil has seen the contrast between the unitary and rather ill-defined religion of Óðinn and the analytic religion of Mithotyn (actually *Mitoðinn, from ON mjötur, "measurer," meaning "dispenser of fate"), who introduces rules where there were none. As Dumézil puts it, "The lawyer replaces the inspired, and his very precision makes him hatable!" (Dumézil, 1939, p. 224).

Bragi is another lesser god about whom little is known. His name seems to be related to the Old Norse word bragr, which designates "poetic form," and he is described as the "foremost of poets," being in this way in competition with Óðinn as patron of poetry. In the Eddic poem Loki's Slanging Match (Lokasenna, sts. 815) he bickers with Loki, who chides him for his lack of courage in combat. Obviously, his power is in speech, and his eloquence is strengthened by the magic of the runes carved on his tongue. Bragi is the husband of Iðunn, the guardian of the apples that ensure the eternal youth of the gods. The only myth relating to her tells that Loki delivered her and her apples to the giants. Catastrophe ensues when everyone in Ásgarðr grows old and infirm. They summon Loki before their council and compel him to retrieve Iðunn and her apples. The trickster flies to Jötunheimr in the shape of a falcon to recover Iðunn and her precious possessions from the clutches of the giant Þjazi. The latter pursues Loki in the form of an eagle and is killed when he tries to fly into Ásgarðr. Although apples were not cultivated in Scandinavia until late in the Middle Ages, the theme of this story must be quite old, as the Norwegian poet Þjóðólfr of Hvin refers to Iðunn and the "old-age medicine" of the gods in his composition Haustlöng, composed around the year 900. The desire of the giants for a goddess as well as for outrageous rewards from the Æsir is again illustrated by the story of the "master builder" of the divine stronghold, who requests Freyja as payment for his work and demands the sun and the moon to boot, obviously intending to plunge the world into darkness and sterility.

Very little information is given about the other goddesses, apart from Freyja:

  • Frigg, Óðinn's wife, is the devoted mother of Baldr; she lives in Fensalir ("marshy halls"), attended by her confidant Fulla. Loki claims that she shared her sexual favors with her husband's brothers, Vili and Vé (Lokasenna, st. 26), and Saxo also refers to her loose morals, which trigger the episode with Mithotyn.
  • Jörð ("earth"), the mother of Þórr, is also known under the name of Fjörgyn, which may mean "goddess of the furrow" (cf. Gmc., *furho; OHG, fur[u]h; OE, furh; Fris., furge; Ger., Furche; Eng., furrow ). Her male counterpart is Fjörgynn, who is believed to be either the father or the lover of Frigg, because the latter is called Fjörgyns mær (Lokasenna, st. 26: "Fjörgynn's maiden"). Fjörgynn's name, however, is related to the set of terms derived from the Indo-European term *perkw- and associated with thunder, craggy mountains, and the oak tree. Among them are the Lithuanian name Perkunas ("thunder"; cf. Slav., *Perunu), the Gothic word fairguni ("mountain"; cf. Lat., Hercynia silva, a wooded mountain range in ancient Germany), and the Latin word quercus (oak), as well as the Langobardic fereha aesculus and the Old High German fereh-eih, both of which designate a type of oak tree (cf. OE, furh; OHG, for[a]ha, "fir"). These etymological links rest on the age-old perception of the predilection of lightning for rocky spots and oak trees and reflect the correlations established between them in Indo-European myth and tradition.
  • The goddess Gefjun is said to have torn away a sizable chunk of land from Sweden and dragged it away to form the Danish island of Sjælland. To perform this deed, she turned her four giant-begotten sons into oxen and yoked them to a plow. Although she is mentioned as a separate deity in Lokasenna (st. 20), she seems to be a hypostasis of Freyja, who is also known as Gefn ("giver"), a name befitting a fertility goddess. Loki, indeed, reproaches Gefjun for having "lured to lust" Heimdallr, who gave her a precious jewelpresumably the mysterious "sea kidney" (ON, hafnyra, probably referring to a piece of amber) he had won in an epic battle with Lokieven before she "threw [her] thighs about him" (a behavior paralleling that of Freyja for the possession of the valuable Brising Necklace). How Snorri can describe her as a virgin, served by women who die unmarried, remains unexplained.
  • Sif, the wife of Þórr and the mother of Ullr by another male deity, plays a rather unobtrusive part in the society of the Æsir, but although she is shy and retiring, Loki claimed to have enjoyed her favors (Loki's Slanging Match, st. 54), and apparently Óðinn was aware of it, because he warns Þórr that "someone sleeps in her bower with Sif " (Song of Hárbarðr, st. 48). This explains why Loki dares to cut off Sif's hair, a punishment normally inflicted on adulteresses. But Þórr does not believe in the unfaithfulness of his wife and compels Loki to go to the dwarves to obtain hair made out of gold that will replace her lost locks. This story accounts for the poetic circumlocution "Sif's hair," which means "gold."

In many cases it is questionable whether some deities named by Snorri are anything more than local variants of major gods, used primarily to provide variation in poetic language. Thus we have no myths relating to goddesses such as Eir ("the best of physicians"), Sjöfn (who brings people to love), and Lofn ("permission," who brings together those who cannot marry).

The Creation of Man

The Germanic myth of the creation of man appears in two versions, that in Völuspá (sts. 1718) and that in Snorri's Edda. In both cases, three deities are involved: the Æsir in the former and the sons of Borr in the latter. Walking along the shore, the gods find two tree trunks, which they animate and endow with various qualities. In the Vǫluspá account, Óðinn gives them breath and soul, Hœnir gives them feeling and sense, and Lóðurr gives them craft, bearing, and color. In Snorri's account, the first god gives them breath and life, the second god gives them consciousness and movement, and the third god gives them faces, speech, hearing, and sight. Close parallels to this myth are lacking. Hesiod mentions that Zeus created a race of men from ash trees, and indeed in the Old Norse name of the first man is Askr (ash tree). There is also some correspondence with an Indic tale in which a sculptor, a goldsmith, a weaver, and a priest whittle a piece of sandalwood into the shape of a pretty woman. The sculptor shapes it, the weaver dresses it, the goldsmith adorns it with jewels, and the priest breathes life into it through his incantations. The basic idea in these myths is the samea human being is fashioned out of a piece of woodbut the elaboration of the theme is totally different. In the Indic tale, giving life is the crowning act of the long process of shaping a human being; in the Germanic myth, the triad of gods creates the primordial being right away. What characterizes the Eddic account is the unity of the creative act by direct divine intervention in spite of the distribution of the human qualities by three different gods. It is interesting, therefore, to examine how these gifts relate to the nature and function of the deities involved.

In Snorri's version, the gods in question are the sons of Borr: Óðinn, Vili, and Vé, the same group that created the world by dismembering the primal giant Ymir. As Vili and Vé are little more than hypostases of Óðinn, the whole process of creation is ascribed to that supreme god (perhaps a Christian-influenced effort to reduce the triad of gods to one). Vǫluspá' s version of man's creation undoubtedly represents an older tradition. That man would receive the breath of life from Óðinn is in keeping with his position as the sovereign god, meting out life-giving power (ON, önd, "breath"; the translation "soul" has Christian implications that the Old Norse term acquires only later). Óðinn's name (Gmc., *Wōðan[az]) derives from a root meaning "to blow" and includes the connotation "life-giving power" in some of its derivations; it is cognate to Old Irish fáith (seer, prophet) and Latin vātes (soothsayer). Óðinn is indeed the inspired god, the prince of the poets, the master of the divinatory runes, and the wielder of awesome magical powers. The Germanic stem of his name, *wōþ-, also appears in German as Wut (rage). Adam of Bremen thus correctly interpreted Óðinn's name as "furor" in his description of the pagan gods worshiped at the temple at Uppsala. The Old Norse term óðr, usually translated "mind, reason, understanding," is the gift of Hœnir, according to Vǫluspá (st. 18). But óðr is also used as an adjective meaning "mad, furious, vehement; eager, impatient," all of which point to either strong emotional stress or lack of control over the power of reasoning. The inspired cerebral activity expressed by *wōþ- can indeed verge on ecstasy; thus, the name of the mead of poetic inspiration, óðrœrir, literally means "rousing to the point of ecstasy." Stanza 18 of Vǫluspá is the only context in which óðr is assumed to have the meaning "mind, reason, understanding," and the main reason for ascribing this meaning to it here is the parallel text by Snorri, in which the second god endows man with vit ok hrœring (wit and movement), with special focus on vit (intelligence). However, hrœring need not apply only to physical movement. It occurs in compounds and phrases pointing clearly to emotions, so that Snorri's use of vit in association with hrœring may well indicate specifically the movements of the mind that óðr expresses in Vǫluspá.

This misinterpretation of óðr is also ascribable to the fact that Hœnir is often described as a wise god; his name is supposed to be derived from a root meaning "to make keen, to sharpen," so that he would be the god who sharpens the mind. Dumézil calls him "the patron of the deep, invisible part of intelligence" (Dumézil, 1986, p. 227). This view is based on two events. First, when the giant Þjazi, in the shape of an eagle, asks Hœnir for a full share of the meal the gods are cooking, Hœnir does not answer but cannot help breathing heavily with anger. Second, whenever he attends the assembly of the Vanir as a chief and fails to get Mímir's advice, Hœnir does not take a stand, but merely states "Let others decide!" Dumézil considers Hœnir's refusal to commit himself to be the only wise attitude under the circumstances, and contrasts it with Loki's rashness, which turns into disaster when he tries to beat Þjazi with a stick after the giant snatches four pieces of meat from the gods. In the case of the assembly, Dumézil suggests that Mímir and Hœnir represent complementary symbolizations of human thought processes: Mímir represents the "collective consciousness" on which we rely for decision making, and without which individual thought (i.e., Hœnir) is worthless. Dumézil's explanation is ingenious but far from convincing, for all the texts show Hœnir as unable to act on his own, and although that may not make him weak-minded, as various scholars have suggested, it hardly makes him a "god of reflective thought." Rather, he is the instrument of divine inspiration, the one who utters the message conveyed by another's wisdom. In the absence of Mímir (his source of inspiration), he remains silent at the assembly, and therefore he is described as the most fearful of all gods because he cannot act without being advised. After Ragnarǫk, he will function as priest, consulting the oracles (i.e., interpreting the signs given by an outside power, again as the vehicle of divine inspiration). It is in this capacity that he is instrumental in endowing man with "inspired mental activity" (óðr ); thus some scholars have also considered him a hypostasis of Óðinn.

The third god in the divine triad, Lóðurr, is more difficult to define functionally, for he is hardly known outside this context. (Elsewhere he is described simply as a friend of Óðinn, an association he shares with quite a few gods in the Scandinavian pantheon.) Because in other contexts Óðinn and Hœnir are closely associated with Loki, scholars have also attempted to equate Lóðurr with Loki (as a god of fire) on the basis of etymological speculations, but the arguments advanced to back up this hypothesis have all proved untenable. The identification of Lóðurr with the term logaþore, which occurs with the name Woðan and Wigiþonar in the runic inscription on the Nordendorf Fibula (first half of the seventh century) is also disputable: logaþore is presumably cognate with the Old English logor or logeer (wily, crafty), applying to magicians. This connection with magic, with the connotation of plotting mischief, could fit the personality of Óðinn fairly well, so that Lóðurr might just be another hypostasis of this god. But before overriding the etymological difficulties connected with this view, it is advisable to examine more closely the gifts bestowed by Lóðurr upon the primal human couple: according to the text, he gives them lá, læti, and litir góðir. The last of these means "good colors," implying good health and also physical beauty, which was considered a sign of noble ancestry among the Germanic people. (Thus it is Beowulf's handsome appearance that distinguishes him from his companions, and the Anglo-Saxon poet uses for this peerless appearance the very same term that Snorri uses to qualify the gift of the third deity.) Læti means "noise, voice" or "gestures, attitude" and refers specifically to manners in other contexts. Since Snorri specifies speech, hearing, and sight as the gifts of the third deity to the first human couple, it is obvious that Snorri's account represents a different tradition from that of Vǫluspá. The term lá is problematic because its etymological connections are difficult to assess. The usual translation, "blood," rests on a disputable interpretation of a single line of poetry. In another poetic context the term is associated with the adjective sölr (pale, yellow), suggesting the interpretation "sallow-complexioned." This would imply that lá means "look, mien." Lóðurr would then have given man his mien and good complexion (i.e., his physical appearance). The only corroboration for this interpretation is provided by the Tocharian term lek (appearance, mien), derived from the same Indo-European root. An alternate solution would be to interpret lá as "hair" (from Gmc., *lawo, "cutting"), showing the same semantic development as the Sanskrit cognate lava - (cutting, wool, hair). Thus the Eddic line could well be interpreted as "Lóðurr gave hair and fair complexion to man." If Óðinn and Hœnir bestow essentially spiritual qualities upon man, whereas Lóðurr provides him with his physical aspect, Lóðurr must be a god presiding over the physical aspects of life, closer to nature than the lofty Æsir. In other words, he must be one of the Vanir, part of the old Germanic fertility cult. His name may be connected with the Old Norse term ló (produce of the land). Swedish place-names indicate that there was a Germanic hypostasis of the great goddess of fertility named *Liuðgoða, and her male counterpart, *Loðverr, could survive in Lóðurr as a divinity of generation and growth and protector of the ethnic community.

The Mead of Poetic Inspiration

The ability to compose poetry was highly valued by the Scandinavians, and it is not surprising that the patron god of poetry was the sovereign deity Óðinn himself. Moreover, the special language used in Norse poems made extensive use of allusions to the gods and supernatural beings such as giants and dwarves. For these reasons, the myth about the mead of poetic inspiration must have been of particular importance. It exists in several versions, but the gist is that malicious dwarves killed Kvasir (the being created in token of the accord between the Æsir and the Vanir) and brewed a mead from his blood that would bestow the ability to compose poetry. The dwarves were forced to relinquish this magical substance to the giants, who guarded it jealously, although they did not drink of it themselves. Óðinn obtains the mead by seducing its giantess guardian, swallowing it all, changing himself into an eagle, flying to Ásgarðr, and spewing it out into three crocks the Æsir had ready. This story illustrates the dichotomy between the gods, who are associated with culture and craft, and the giants, who are associated with the hostile natural environment. It also illustrates the dichotomy between the gods' ostensible motivation, which is the benevolent desire to make good use of a magical substance, and their behavior, which includes deceit, seduction, and theft. This myth must be part of the Indo-European heritage, for it has parallels with stories told about the Indian god Indra, who has an encounter with the monster Mada ("Drunkeness") and who is also the recipient of soma, the intoxicating sacrificial liquor that gives poetic ability, immortality, and knowledge of the divine. As with the mead of poetic inspiration, soma was brought to the gods by an eagle or possibly Indra in the form of an eagle.

The Death of Baldr

The story of Baldr's fate is probably the most moving and most controversial of all the Scandinavian myths. In this story, best known from Snorri's Edda, Óðinn's resplendent son Baldr is plagued by evil dreams of impending death. To protect against any danger, his mother, Frigg, exacts an oath from everything in the world not to harm him, but neglects the puny mistletoe. Jealous of the attention Baldr receives in the games of the gods, Loki, in the disguise of a woman, wheedles the secret of Baldr's invulnerability out of his mother. He then persuades Baldr's blind brother, Höðr, who has been prevented by his infirmity from any participation in the sportive tossing of objects at Baldr, to throw a dart of mistletoe. Under Loki's guidance the missile hits Baldr and kills him. The gods are stunned, and while preparations for Baldr's burial are in progress, they send out Hermóðr on Óðinn's horse to the kingdom of Hel to entreat the goddess of the netherworld for the release of the unfortunate god. Meanwhile, Baldr's wife, Nanna, dies of grief and her body is carried onto the ship Hringhorni ("curved prow"), where she joins her husband on the funeral pyre. As for Hermóðr, he returns with the message that Baldr will be released only on the condition that "everything in the world, both dead and alive, weeps for him." Immediately the Æsir dispatch messengers all over the universe to request everyone and everything to weep Baldr out of Hel's clutches. Even the stones and the metals participate in the universal grief, but a giantess called Þökk says she has no use for Baldr; as far as she is concerned, Hel can keep him! Þökk is actually Loki in disguise, and thus he succeeds in preventing the return of Baldr, who will only come back after Ragnarǫk. Scholarly interpretations of this myth are many and conflicting, but it worth mentioning that the story underscores the limitations of the Æsir, who for all their power essentially rule the universe for a single generation and are then destroyed.

The End of the World

The destruction of the world hangs over the gods and man as a permanent threat. Ragnarǫk (fate of the gods) or aldar rök (the fate of humankind) has been misinterpreted as ragnarøkkr (twilight of the gods). The Old Norse term rök means "course of events, destiny, fate." The Germanic apocalyptic vision of the end of time appears in Vǫluspá, presumably composed during the wane of paganism at the end of the ninth or the beginning of the tenth century. As Jan de Vries has indicated, the anonymous poet must have been a pious man, still convinced that sufficient faith in paganism persisted to promote a rebirth, but one who borrowed too much from Christianity to be considered a truly pagan seer (de Vries, 19561957, vol. 2, pp. 395396). It is therefore difficult to assess how much of his worldview is genuinely Germanic and how much his vision of the future and his yearning for a "brave new world" free of strife and lies is shaped by Christian influences.

The prelude to the final catastrophe is the murder of Baldr, but the elements of decay appear to have been present in the world from the start. The Lay of Grímnir (st. 36) describes the cosmic tree Yggdrasill as having "the hart browsing above, its bole rotting, and Níðhǫggr gnawing beneath"; it is weakened more than humankind suspects. Initially the gods appear to enjoy an idyllic life in the shining plain of Iðavöllr, where they relax and play chess after building shrines and making gold jewels, until three giant maidens come to disturb the serenity of this garden of delight. These are the Norns, who bring uncontrollable fate into the Germanic world. From the moment of their arrival, events take their inescapable course. Tension grows between the Æsir and the Vanir, and the strife worsens into a war when the seeress Gullveig brings the corruption of greed, lust, and witchcraft into Ásgarðr. Peace is temporarily restored and hostages are exchanged, but the age of innocence is gone. The gods can no longer be trusted; they break their most solemn promises or resort to trickery to avoid fulfilling them. Then comes the worst, the treacherous killing of Baldr by the throwing of the mistletoe, the missile in the hand of his blind brother Höðr, guided by the perfidious Loki. Punishment follows for the criminal, but the fateful action has triggered the chain of events that will culminate in ultimate disaster, with one horrible scene following upon another.

In Vǫluspá the seeress describes the river of the netherworld, full of sharp blades, and the shore of death with Hel's hall, whose walls are "clad with coiling snakes." Through the river wade perjurers, murderers, and adulterers, and the serpent Níðhǫggr feeds on corpses along its banks. She also describes the evil brood of Fenrir in the Iron Woods to the east, the wolves that will devour the sun and the moon. The sun grows dim, the weather "woe-bringing"; a horribly long winter will bring famine, as described in the Lay of Vafþrúðnir (st. 44). The final doom is heralded by a couple of obscure stanzas in which three roosters crow to call up the fightersgiants, Óðinn's warriors in Valhǫll, and the dead in Hel's realmfor the last combat. Now the forces of evil break loose: the hellhound Garmr breaks its fetters, and in the world of men, fratricidal struggles erupt everywhere; the bonds of kinship are disregarded ("woe's in the world, much wantonness"), and no respect for human life remains. Heimdallr, the watchman of the gods, blows his horn, the cosmic tree Yggdrasill shakes in its roots, the world serpent "wallows in giant rage," and the ship of death breaks its moorings. All the forces of destruction move in. Loki leads the "witless hordes" of giants, and Surtr, the lord of Muspelheimr, arrives from the south with the fire demons that will set the world ablaze. The mountains totter, heaven is rent apart, and men tread the path of Hel. In the final clash the gods meet their fates: Óðinn is slaughtered by the wolf Fenrir but is avenged by his son Víðarr; Þórr meets his archfoe, the earth-girding serpent, and they kill each other; Freyr dies in single combat with Surtr. The sun turns dark, the stars fall from the sky, and the blazing earth sinks into the sea.

But this apocalypse does not mean that all is lost. The earth, which was originally lifted from the primeval waters by Óðinn and his brothers, reemerges purified and regenerated from the deep into which it had sunk. A new breed of gods meet again in the green pastures and find the chessmen left by the Æsir. Baldr and Höðr are reborn to dwell in perfect harmony in the divine halls, and henceforth guiltless men will live forever in a gold-roofed abode called Gimlé. A mighty unnamed deity will reign over all, but evil has not been completely eradicated, for Níðhöggr, the awful dragon carrying corpses in its pinions, is still roaming over the plains.

Vǫluspá, whose description of the fate of the gods has been presented here, does not constitute our only source about Ragnarǫk, nor does it strictly reflect popular beliefs about the end of time. The Eddic poems often contain divergent versions of certain episodes, and Snorri, who gave a detailed account of the same events in his Edda, quotes from all the sources available to him. Thus, describing Óðinn's tragic end and Víðarr's vengeance, Snorri prefers the cruder and more primitive version of the Lay of Vafþrúðnir, in which Víðarr, wearing a shoe made of all the leather pared off from men's shoes at the toes and heels since the beginning of time, pulls apart Fenrir's jaws. The strange similarity between the action of Víðarr and that of Lugh in the Irish tradition of the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh, along with the association of the Celtic god Lug(us) with cobblers, may indicate that this strange reference to the origin of Víðarr's footwear reflects a very old, no longer well-understood tradition associating this Germanic deity with the shoemakers. Therefore, the Vǫluspá version, which states that Víðarr "hews the son of Hveðrungr to the heart," presumably represents a younger form of the story. In any event, there was a widespread intimation of the impending catastrophe affecting the gods in the Scandinavian world. This is widely demonstrated by numerous references in court poetry. For example, in a poem commissioned by the widow of the Norwegian king Eirik Bloodax (killed in England in 954), Eirik is assumed to have been called to Valhǫll by Óðinn, who needed him for the impending final conflict: "The grey wolf [Fenrir] is glaring at the dwellings of the gods, ready to jump." Similarly, Eyvindr the Plagiarist celebrated the Norwegian king Hákon the Good (d. 960) by saying: "Unfettered will fare the Fenrir-wolf and ravage the / realm of men ere that cometh a kingly prince as / good to stand in his stead" (Hollander, 1964, p. 127).

Religious Practices and Morality

Apart from Ibn Fadlan's account of a Scandinavian funeral, there are few wholly reliable sources of information about pagan religious practices. Icelandic sagas contain characters who are pagan priests, seeresses, witches, and sorcerors, and they describe rituals such as fortune-telling, "baptism," funerals, sanctifications of land and temples, oath-taking, sacrifices, and feasts of sacrificial meat (in Iceland, often horse meat). The sagas are products of the Christian age, however, and for several reasons are liable to give inaccurate accounts of paganism. Nonetheless, we know that pagan Scandinavians had temples where sacrifices were conducted, and that the function of the priest was an important one. In addition, certain rites such as fortune-telling and sacrificing to the elves were conducted on individual farms.

Germanic and Scandinavian paganism was by no means a monolithic religion. Both the pantheon and religious practices evolved over time and were different in different places, facts of which medieval Scandinavians were dimly aware. For example, in his prologue to his history of the kings of Norway, Snorri discusses what he calls "The Age of Burning" (when the dead were cremated and memorial stones with runic inscriptions were erected in their memory) and "The Age of Barrows" (when the dead were inhumed and an artificial hill of earth was raised over their graves). Longships sometimes served as the coffins of kings and other people of rank, as in the Sutton Hoo burial in England and the Oseberg burial in Norway, and in Sweden the barrows were long, pointed ovalsthe shape of the "footprint" of a longship. It is not clear whether this attests to a belief that the dead needed a ship to travel to the next world, or whether the ship (actual or symbolic) was considered something that would be useful in the afterlife, like the weapons or household tools that were sometimes placed in graves. There were also different beliefs regarding the afterworld. Norse mythology and court poetry focus on the life in Valhǫll of the warriors killed in battle, but the Icelandic sagas attest to beliefs that a dead person would spend the afterlife feasting with companions in his grave mound or would join his kin, who would be "living" in a nearby cliff or mountain. These beliefs were very likely to have originated in Norway, the homeland of many of the original settlers of Iceland. Finally, in addition to the geographic distribution of the cults of a particular god, Norse paganism seems to have involved no restrictions or requirements regarding an individual's beliefs. According to the sagas, at least, one person could be a devotee of Þórr, whereas his neighbor was a devotee of Freyr. From a very early period, Germanic and Scandinavian pagans were rarely wholly isolated from Christianity, and a certain amount of syncretism undoubtedly resulted. The sagas, for example, tell of one Icelander who prayed to Christ while he was ashore but to Þórr while he was at sea.

The value system of Germanic paganism had to do with people's actions rather than their thoughts, feelings, or beliefs. There was no religious moral code defining particular "virtues" or "sins"; instead, Germanic law, culture, and custom embodied a system in which certain actions would bring honor or dishonor to an individual. Shame might or might not be felt by someone who had brought dishonor upon himself, but a person's reputation was a product of his or her interaction with the community, not a matter between that person and a god. Generally speaking, showing bravery in battle, generosity in gift-giving and hospitality, and taking blood-vengeance in response to a killing or murder would enhance a man's honor. Generosity also enhanced a woman's honor, as did urging men to honorable actions and dying with them should their hall or farm be attacked. Cowardice and miserliness brought dishonor. There was no dishonor in amassing as much wealth as one could, only in not being generous with what one had. In the end, neither one's honor nor one's belief in a god or the gods seems to have been relevant to one's fate after death, despite the acceptance of the concepts of Valhǫll and Hel. Malicious people sometimes returned as destructive ghosts or revenants to harm the living, but there were ways of laying them to rest. The peaceful dead would be served in the afterlife by the things burned or buried with them (clothing, jewelry, weapons, tools, and household items, sometimes extending to food, dogs, horses, and servants), and in this world their reputations would live on after them "for as long as the northern part of the world is inhabited."

See Also

Álfar; Axis Mundi; Baldr; Berserkers; Dismemberment; Dvergar; Eddas; Freyja; Freyr; Fylgjur; Heimdallr; Indo-European Religions, overview article; Jôtnar; Landvættir; Loki; Njǫrðr; Óðinn; Olaf the Holy; Paganism, Anglo-Saxon; Runes; Sagas; Saxo Grammaticus; Snorri Sturluson; Thor; Týr; Valhǫll; Valkyries.


For the Indo-European creation myths, see Bruce Lincoln's Myth, Cosmos, and Society: Indo-European Themes of Creation and Destruction (Cambridge, Mass., 1986). On the Germanic pantheon, see E. O. G. Turville-Petre's general work Myth and Religion of the North (London, 1964) and Georges Dumézil's general study Gods of the Ancient Northmen (Berkeley, Calif., 1973). Other standard works on the topic include Jan de Vries's Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Berlin, 19561957); R. L. M. Derolez's Götter und Mythen der Germanen (Darmstadt, Germany, 1959; Einsiedeln, Switzerland, 1963); and Régis Boyer's La religion des Anciens Scandinaves (Paris, 1981). Hilda R. Ellis Davidson's Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Baltimore, 1964) is written for a wider public. A more controversial work is Åke V. Ström's Germanische Religion, vol. 19 of Die Religionen der Menschheit (Stuttgart, 1975). A better summary, strongly influenced by Georges Dumézil, is Werner Betz's "Die altgermanische Religion," in Wolfgang Stammler's Deutsche Philologie im Aufriss, vol. 3 (Berlin, 1957). Succinct presentations are found in Lennart Ejerfeldt's contribution to the Handbuch der Religionsgeschichte, vol. 1, edited by Jes P. Asmussen and Jørgen Laessøe (Göttingen, 1971), pp. 277342; and in Eduard Neumann and Helmut Voigt's entry in Wörterbuch der Mythologie, vol. 2 of Das alte Europa, edited by H. W. Haussig (Stuttgart, 1972). On Tacitus, compare J. G. C. Anderson's Cornelii Taciti De origine et situ Germanorum (Oxford, 1961), Rudolf Much's Die Germania des Tacitus erläutert, edited by Wolfgang Lange and Herbert Jankuhn (Heidelberg, Germany, 1967), and Allan Lund's Zum Germanenbild der Römer: eine Einführung in die antike Ethnographie (Heidelberg, Germany, 1990). On the sovereign gods, consult Georges Dumézil's Les dieux souverains des Indo-Européens (Paris, 1977). On the divine twins, compare Donald Ward's The Divine Twins: An Indo-European Myth in Germanic Tradition (Berkeley, Calif., 1968) and Georges Dumézil's From Myth to Fiction: The Saga of Hadingus (Chicago, 1973), especially pp. 109120. Dumézil's early views are found in Mythes et dieux des Germains: Essai d'interprétation comparative (Paris, 1939); a later comparative work is his Loki (Paris, 1986). Margaret Clunies Ross takes an anthropological approach in Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse Myths in Medieval Northern Society, vol. 1 (Odense, Denmark, 1994). John Lindow surveys the scholarship in Scandinavian Mythology: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1988) and also applies anthropological theory to the myth of Baldr in Murder and Vengence among the Gods: Baldr in Scandinavian Mythology (Helsinki, Finland, 1997). The encyclopedia-style entries of Phillip Pulsiano's Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia (New York, 1993), Rudolf Simek's Dictionary of Northern Mythology (Cambridge, U.K., 1993), and John Lindow's Handbook of Norse Mythology (Santa Barbara, Calif., 2001) are very detailed. For Germanic beliefs about the afterlife, see Hilda Roderick Ellis's The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature (New York, 1968). Thomas A. DuBois examines the dynamic interrelationships of the various religions of pagan Scandinavia in Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (Philadelphia, 1999). An English translation of Snorri's euhemeristic history is provided by Lee M. Hollander, Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway, by Snorri Sturluson (Austin, Tex., 1964)

Edgar C. PolomÉ (1987)

Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (2005)

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Germanic Religion: An Overview

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